By TIMOTHY JOHNSON
Anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is using multiple Facebook pages he operates to spread lies about the safety of vaccines against COVID-19 as part of a campaign to discourage people from receiving the lifesaving shots.
As one of the most prominent anti-vaccine figures in the U.S., Kennedy’s anti-vaccine campaign is sure to have deadly consequences: Increased COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy will slow down — and at worst, foreclose the possibility — of the development of herd immunity against the disease in the U.S. through vaccination rather than through natural infection, which could cause millions of unnecessary deaths.
Facebook is abetting Kennedy in these efforts. On February 8, the social media platform announced its claim that it will “remove posts with erroneous claims about vaccines from across its platform.” That promise, thus far, appears to be empty words.
Also on February 8, Media Matters published a report about how anti-vaccine activist and COVID-19 denier Del Bigtree, a frequent Kennedy collaborator, simply moved his dangerous COVID-19 and vaccine lies to a different page after Facebook banned the page he was primarily using at the time for violating policies against “misinformation that could cause physical harm.” (His previous primary Facebook page, which was used to broadcast his anti-vaccine online broadcast The HighWire, was only banned following months of inaction from the platform as he encouraged people to intentionally contract COVID-19 and made other dangerous claims.) Like Kennedy’s, Bigtree’s Instagram page was removed, but his Facebook page — where he spreads dangerous medical misinformation — was not.
The uneven enforcement can also be seen in Facebook’s treatment of Kennedy. On February 11, The New York Times reported that Kennedy’s page on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, was removed for violating policies against spreading misinformation about vaccines. As the Times noted, the enforcement action “did not include Mr. Kennedy’s Facebook page, which was still active as of early Thursday and makes many of the same baseless claims to more than 300,000 followers,” and Facebook said “that there were no plans to take down Mr. Kennedy’s Facebook account ‘at this time.’”
Kennedy operates two pages on Facebook that post similar anti-vaccine falsehoods. One page — “Robert F. Kennedy, Jr” — is listed as an “environmental conservation organization” and has more than 300,000 followers. Kennedy’s other page is for his anti-vaccine nonprofit organization, Children’s Health Defense. That page has nearly 150,000 followers and is allowed by Facebook to list itself as a “medical & health” organization.
Kennedy has used these pages to spread dangerous misinformation about COVID-19 and to attack the development of vaccines against the disease. And now that the coronavirus vaccines have been approved and are being administered to the public, Kennedy is using these pages to discourage people from receiving them by baselessly suggesting the vaccines have been connected to myriad horrible medical consequences, including death.
Below is a review of the dangerous misinformation found on Kennedy’s Facebook pages over the last month.
Children’s Health Defense
On February 10, Children’s Health Defense promoted a speculative concern raised by a pediatrician in a public comment to the Food and Drug Administration, claiming that mRNA vaccines, like those produced by Pfizer and Moderna, could cause brain, heart, liver, and kidney damage. There is no evidence the pediatrician’s theory is correct and COVID-19 vaccine safety trials did not find that possible side effects included organ damage.
Children’s Health Defense published a February 5 post that pushed the false implication that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) indicated a connection between receiving a COVID-19 vaccine and death. Anyone can submit a report to VAERS and, as the system’s website explains, “when evaluating data from VAERS, it is important to note that for any reported event, no cause-and-effect relationship has been established.” Furthermore, in any large population, such as the millions of people receiving COVID-19 vaccines, some deaths are to be expected from natural causes or other unrelated circumstances. For example, some people who receive COVID-19 vaccines will later die in car crashes, but that does not mean there is a causal relationship between the vaccine and the accident.
Also on February 5, Children’s Health Defense promoted the false claim that Drene Keyes, a vaccine recipient, died from a medical event triggered by anaphylaxis, which can be a rare side effect of vaccination. In fact, Virginia Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver stated that “preliminary findings indicate that the cause of death was not anaphylaxis.” There is no indication Keyes’ death was caused by receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Children’s Health Defense baselessly connected the death of California medical worker Tim Zook to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Zook’s family told a local news outlet that they remain proponents of the vaccine and are awaiting answers from the coroner’s office about Zook’s cause of death, which has not been determined. Pfizer released a statement that said, “Serious adverse events, including deaths that are unrelated to the vaccine, are unfortunately likely to occur at a similar rate as they would in the general population.”
On January 25, Children’s Health Defense urged its supporters to make reports to the VAERS system — the same system that CHD would later use to baselessly imply COVID-19 vaccines were killing people. Presumably CHD’s audience would not be made up of people who are receiving COVID-19 vaccinations. Knowingly reporting false information to VAERS is a federal crime.
On January 22, Children’s Health Defense baselessly connected the death of baseball legend Hank Aaron to a COVID-19 vaccine. Among all of the posts Media Matters reviewed in this report, this was the only one that carried a disclaimer. The disclaimer, however, is inadequate as it merely says the claim is “missing context” and that this information “could mislead people.” In fact, the claim is false: Aaron died of natural causes, not because of a reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine.
Children’s Health Defense falsely claimed in a January 20 post that the deaths of 33 elderly people in Norway were suspected to be connected to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, the deaths were investigated and found to have no connection to the vaccine and instead occurred at a rate to be expected for that specific population.
Beyond baseless attacks on COVID-19 vaccines, Children’s Health Defense also recently attacked the flu shot with the false claim receiving one makes people more susceptible to serious COVID-19 complications. In fact, getting a flu shot may be connected to a reduced likelihood of severe COVID-19 outcomes.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
On the Robert F. Kennedy Facebook page, Kennedy shares many of the same articles that appear on the Children’s Health Defense page that baselessly connect the COVID-19 vaccine to serious health complications including death.